12 April 2009

IN MEMORIAM: Another two wonderul voices gone silent - Australian mezzo-soprano Margreta Elkins and Italian-American bass Ezio Flagello

In recent days, another two of the finest operatic voices of the twentieth century were silenced by death. With the passing of each singer of former generations, important links with the performing traditions that in many cases can be traced directly back to the genre's greatest composers are broken forever. There are many exceptionally talented young artists among us in this first decade of the new millennium, but even names from earlier generations that are largely forgotten now belonged to singers who during their careers may have been second-tier artists but whose voices were of first-tier quality. Those were heady days when a mezzo-soprano's Amneris was subject to direct, contemporary comparison with Simionato's and a basso's Sparafucile with Siepi's. Comparisons mean less when listening after decades have passed, and it is difficult to avoid echoing the sentiment one so often hears and reads: even among the finest singers of the current scene, many of these 'second-cast' artists of former generations would be towering figures now.

The wonderful Australian mezzo-soprano Margreta Elkins (pictured here with Dame Joan Sutherland) passed away on 1 April, following a brave battle against cancer. Born in Brisbane on 16 October 1930, Elkins sang the great mezzo-soprano roles in Mozart, bel canto, and Verdi repertory, with excursions into Strauss with Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier and Wagner with Sieglinde in Die Walküre and Brangäne in Tristan und Isolde. Declining invitations to sing at Bayreuth and the Metropolitan Opera, Elkins centered her career in Britain and her native Australia.

One of the most frequently told stories of Elkins' career concerns her 1959 engagement to sing Alisa opposite the Lucia of Maria Callas in Callas' second studio recording of Donizetti's opera, in which Elkins also frequently partnered Dame Joan Sutherland (including the 1959 Covent Garden performance that announced Sutherland's arrival as successor of Callas in
bel canto repertory). During the recording sessions, the severely myopic Callas' eyeglasses went missing: it was discovered after a furious search that Elkins had been sitting on them. From all accounts, this humorous incident is indicative of Elkins as a colleague. Hardworking, sincere, and committed, Elkins was also regarded as a tremendously gracious colleague and a generally amiable lady.

Possessing a secure voice of beautiful timbre and complete control throughout a wide range than enabled her to sing both mezzo-soprano and soprano roles without strain, Elkins made many recordings, unfortunately often taking secondary roles. Grateful as one is for the shimmering Sieglinde from the underappreciated Gré Brouwenstijn on Erich Leinsdorf's studio recording of
Die Walküre (on which Elkins sang Waltraute), it is possible to regret that Elkins' Sieglinde was not preserved in the context of such a performance, opposite the Siegmund of the young Jon Vickers.

Most impressive to me in Elkins' discography is a 1983 recording made with the Queensland Symphony of Sir Edward Elgar's
Sea Pictures, a de facto song cycle virtually 'owned' on records by Dame Janet Baker. Elkins suffers nothing in comparison with Baker or any of the other singers who have recorded the Sea Pictures. The involvement she brings to the performance, allied with beautiful and forward tone, is arresting. Simply put, it is the work of a remarkable singer.

On 19 March, the wonderful Italian-American bass Ezio Flagello passed away. Born in New York on 28 January 1931, Flagello was among the finest American singers of the 1960's and 1970's. Unlike Elkins, Flagello had the good fortune of being recorded in virtually all of his best roles thanks to essentially being a 'house' bass for RCA Victor.

Bringing to his performances a naturally beautiful voice and a wide range extending to the baritone's top A, Flagello enjoyed particular success at the Metropolitan Opera, by which he was engaged to create a role in Samuel Barber's Antony and Cleopatra for the opening of the new house at Lincoln Center in September 1966. Flagello also had an unusually broad repertory, extending from roles in operas and oratorios by Händel, through bel canto and Verdi repertory, to Wagner and Puccini.

Though Flagello's performances tended to lack the psychological insights brought to the Italian repertory by Cesare Siepi, Flagello possessed a quality voice that won over audiences. On records, his performances are unfailingly beautiful and tasteful, worthy memories of a respected and conscientious artist whose three-decade career gave audiences many happy evenings in the opera house.

Also deserving mention is the passing on 7 March of Schuyler Chapin (born 13 February 1923), the good-hearted Assistant General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera from 1972 until 1976. Chapin accepted the managerial reins at the MET in a difficult period following the tragic death of Göran Gentele and the long, controversial administration of Sir Rudolf Bing. Chapin occasionally misstepped during his brief administration at the MET (a suggestion to the great Renata Tebaldi that she consider taking on mezzo-soprano roles brought death-threats from the mafia for years), but he both understood and respected singers, singing, and the requisite integrity of making music on an international level.

Chapin once said that 'there is nothing simple in the world of the arts.' It is not difficult to appreciate the great voices of Margreta Elkins and Ezio Flagello, however, and to recognize the closing of an era that their deaths hastens.